Yesterday a student walked into a friend’s graduate student office and asked us “Does STEM encourage apathy toward social justice and diversity issues, specifically the lack of black and brown bodies?” A few things were notable about the ensuing discussion: first, no one was ever interrupted! There were five of us in the room! Apparently I have forgotten how to have civil conversations. I was astonished by the fact that no one ever butted in, and respectfully allowed each person to say their full thoughts, with pauses and everything. Does this happen in your life? I think most of my interactions are at the pace of Gilmore Girls or a news channel than, y’know, respect and calm. Also it was maybe the most diverse in-depth conversation on diversity I’ve been part of: a Chinese man, a Vietnamese woman (that’s me), a white woman, a black man, and a black woman from various socioeconomic backgrounds.
So that’s the context behind this post. The question she posed was rather overly broad and poorly defined, but we hit on a lot of points that I thought were interesting and unrelated to each other. Bring in the bullet points and mildly academic-sounding language! We’re mostly considering the dearth of POC in math graduate school and professorship.
- Local culture/society: higher education isn’t regarded as important in every culture. Parents who don’t encourage their kids to go to college probably won’t understand a child’s desire to go to graduate school. The example given here was: “do you play sports? …no? Oh. Okay.” In this person’s hometown, athletics are more important than scholarship. How do you change a culture? Should you try to change a culture? It’s incredibly important to go into a community and listen/learn first, then try to launch programs/solutions. Personal notes here: my family is very supportive and basically let me do whatever I want, but they still all balked a bit at my choice to pursue a Ph.D. in math. They also wanted me to go to UCSD (which would’ve been free + given me money) instead of Yale (which cost money). My first year of graduate school, I was on the phone with a Yale alum who, after I told him I was a grad student, said “you know you just cut your earnings by a third, right?” So we’re all from different cultures that have different values.
- Socioeconomic class: graduate school pays very little. We hover securely above the poverty line (which in 2015 is just under 12k) with about 16-35k stipends (a small survey here), which are generally enough (barely, sometimes) for us to pay for our living expenses. Plus you often have to pay fees back to the school; mine are about 1.6k per year (just under half a monthly paycheck, twice a year). If your parents or siblings need help, or if you have children or other dependents, the stipend won’t be enough. So if you have any of these thoughts in mind, it makes complete sense to not go to graduate school. For more thoughts on this, check out this blog post about being an academic coming from a poverty background. I’m astonished at my friends who have a kid on two grad student stipends. Babies are so expensive! My baby went to daycare three days a week and it cost almost exactly as much as I made per month.
- Intervention programs: they work. Reaching out to communities who haven’t heard of/thought of college/graduate school works. There’s a sad dearth of funding for such programs (often run by private organizations), but they led to some of us being in that room. Fun fact about me: I’m a Mellon Mays Fellow, which means I had a lot of encouragement as an undergraduate to go into academia. MMUF is great. Also so is Upward Bound.
- Pipeline: it’s leaky. See previous bullet point.
- Math itself is very abstract. In your day-to-day life, you won’t be confronted by social justice/diversity issues like you might be if you were in, say, anthropology or ethnic studies. The field doesn’t lend itself to thinking about these sorts of things, so that could explain where that apathy stems from. I haven’t had a ton of conversations with mathematicians about racial diversity (yesterday’s makes it two or so), but I have had a ton of conversations about gender diversity (and every mathematician knows about the AWM). That said, I also did EDGE before starting grad school, and I just learned about SACNAS over the summer. So there are people thinking about these things.
And because I can’t resist slipping women and math into any post, here’s a great little article about increasing the number of girls in math. And by “girls” here we actually do mean “female children” (I’ve gotten pretty good at not calling women “girls” but I still say “you guys” a lot).
There were more points but that’s all I remember. I think I’ll bake something next week, so look forward to that! Last week for husband’s birthday I said “I baked you a surprise!” and he said “is it pavlova?” and the answer was yes. Mini-pavlovas! Just bake for half an hour instead of an hour.